Potential Unlimited: Sameer Daoud, Drake & Scull Int
Unlike previous times, the words technology and construction are ever more commonly used in the same sentence. With all due respect for everything, one reads about innovation and the emergence of smart cities; technological development in the construction sector has been limited compared with industry in general. Among the most highly anticipated developments in the field of construction is 3D printing. If its advocates are to be believed, this technology has the potential to restructure economies and labour markets and redefine the built environment, as we know it.
My interpretation is that conventional construction practices will not become a thing of the past. We are not at the stage yet where buildings will soon be manufactured from the ground up using big 3D printers that mix cement, steel, and plastics. That vision still has a long way to go before it becomes a reality! However, Dubai is pushing the boundaries and becoming a leading hub of 3D printing technology.
Its stated goal is to have 25% of new buildings 3D-printed by 2030. The overarching strategy is to adopt emerging technologies to cut costs; the construction sector being primary focus. I expect that 3D printing will reduce the construction cost and speed up the build time. In some markets like Thailand, we have seen experimenting with delivering one-storey houses. I see this being a more likely first mode of application rather than using it for high-rise applications.
Using 3D printing for modeling and planning needs to be distinguished from adopting it for building construction per se. A challenge with 3D concrete printing is ensuring that the structures have the necessary strength. It is not viable to use it commercially until test methods are established to guarantee materials hold up according to the design. Initially, I see 3D printing to foremost complement existing construction methods. Depositing material quickly and speeding up the construction process compared to conventional methods is a major incentive for experimenting with new technologies in construction.
An example is how printing formwork on site is being considered to replace the labour-intense and time-consuming traditional approach of formworks. 3D printing can also be adapted to use for rapidly building temporary structures in remote areas without easy access to bring in different materials and machinery, for instance, after a natural catastrophe. The stage we are in now is achieving incremental improvements through the adoption of 3D printing and merging it with other emerging technologies and practices such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Virtual Reality (VR).
What I see is the merger of the Internet Age and the Automation Age coming together to completely change what we deem as practically and economically possible. How this is applied in the real world is that these technologies enable the many people and stakeholders involved in a project to handle greater complexity without increased risks of mistakes. In theory, construction projects are rather simple; in that you have the end result clearly staked out and the scope of work defined for each stakeholder.
However, when projects do not happen according to plan, it mostly comes down to human error. Using technology to mitigate these risks represents an incredible potential for improvement. Visualising how the different parts all fit together in a building project is a tool that will expose flaws in the planning process and will help you solve problems before they arise on the construction site. Delays will be fewer; more creative solutions can be designed and tested in a virtual environment before they are implemented in the real world.
The next step beyond that is to manufacture entire prefabricated sections that simply slot together, without the risk of drawings getting misinterpreted and improvised on by workers on site. For planning the MEP fit-out, higher levels of intricacy and customisation will be possible too. Feeding laser measurements from a BIM model and exporting them into a 3D printer will make it possible to customise each component where the MEP layout and fit-out had panels and walls with ducting and wiring pre-planned and controlled precisely.
This will vastly improve the efficiency and what is possible to achieve with MEP design. None of this can be accomplished in one fell swoop, but the journey towards this vision is now well underway. Productivity gains, reduced labour costs, and safer working environments will surely but surely keep improving. The process of adopting new technologies will likely feel slow for longer than many expect, but change will come and inevitably wholly redefine how we approach construction and MEP.